The Very Rational Fear of Fitting In
- and Why We Need To Stop Using the Term ‘Imposter Syndrome’
Writing: Charley Rose
As a student who is working-class, I resent the use of the term ‘imposter syndrome’; commonly used to describe the feeling of not belonging somewhere, or of being chosen by mistake. I certainly relate to the feeling – in fact, I am guilty of having used the term in reference to myself on multiple occasions. I have felt like an imposter since studying for the International Baccalaureate in college and this feeling of inadequacy has only deepened since, particularly now at the University of Edinburgh. It doesn’t even matter what grades I achieved and will achieve: on paper I performed well enough to apply for Oxford, but my rationale of having to sit in front of someone from one of the best Universities in the world knowing that I was not meant to be there prevented me from even trying. Despite becoming ecstatic when I was invited as part of the UNIQ Summer School at Oxford to take trial lessons in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, I felt immensely out of place as soon as I was there. I ended up buying a new dress from H&M with the very little money I had in my bank account because I felt like people were looking at me, judging me, and asking me why I had bothered to show up at all. Walking around Oxford that day, I knew that I would not apply. An imposter I was.
This feeling is often experienced by students who are first starting at University and can ultimately have a serious impact upon one’s academic performance. Studies have shown that first-generation students, particularly those studying in highly competitive STEM subjects, are more likely to experience this feeling of being an ‘imposter’ and thereby also more likely to drop out of university or college than middle-class or continuing-generation students. They are less likely to show up to seminars and lectures and more likely to get lower marks. Yet for too long, proposed solutions have focused on the good-old ‘pull your socks up’ metaphor: Harriet Harris, for example, the University Chaplain and Head of Chaplaincy Service for the UoE wrote a well-meaning but frustrating article about ‘imposter syndrome’ that recommended students overcome their feelings by simply showing up, connecting and participating.
The use of the word ‘syndrome’ pathologises this feeling of inadequacy and implies that the problem lies with the individual and their thinking. Why is it unreasonable for a working-class person to feel out of place in higher education, and moreover in the wider workplace upon graduation? Research shows that working-class graduates holding a first-class degree are still less likely to be hired than middle-class graduates with a 2:2. Middle-class graduates will still earn an average of £7,000 more than their working-class counterparts. To give a real world and personal example: my talented chef boyfriend – a man I am very proud of – told me that when he started working in a high class restaurant, (on pretty much minimum wage, might I add), he felt out of place and like he had to work much harder to prove himself. He was even directly told he didn’t fit in by supervisors. He went as far as to change the way he spoke and dressed around colleagues, and he shaved off his mohawk, all to ‘prove himself’ and fit in. This is just one example of how bigotry towards working-class accents, mannerisms and dress sense does make people feel like they don’t fit in.
There are many specific examples of how working-class students are disadvantaged compared to middle-class students, ranging from access to materials to study time, with many working-class students needing to take on part time jobs to help fund their studies. However, there are institutional values that also disadvantage students. For example, although I agree that public speaking and presentational skills are valuable lessons to be taught, it has to be recognised that the ‘confidence’ which is often expected of students in these graded tasks comes more easily to those who were privately educated and thus generally have more experience of public speaking and competitive debating. Furthermore, Nathalie Olah recently made a fantastic point about how ‘confidence’ as a measure of competence and employability is part of the “codified language in the middle-classes”. To put this differently, the word ‘confidence’ is often used to describe taught behaviour in the privately educated and middle classes, with one example being the sheer confidence that your argument is definitely right. I would argue that it also takes ‘confidence’ to take on the responsibility of people’s wellbeing as a nurse in a care-home, or to face the stampede of angry customers behind the checkout at the post office, but that kind of confidence won’t necessarily get you a six figure wage.
Here is what I suggest: first, we need to do away with the terminology that places the responsibility of feeling out of place on an individual who is being told – sometimes directly – that they are out of place. We need to recognise there exists valid reasons why a working-class student might not feel like they belong in higher education. I am aware that this feeling of inadequacy does not just hit working-class students, and that this article simplifies a problem with many victims. This is not simply class conflict: however, we do need to strive to create a society that does not make an entire group of people feel out of place in one of its most important institutions whilst acknowledging that the working-classes are not the only group that currently feel like they don’t fit in. Finally, we need to rectify the language that we use to describe values and assets in education and beyond.
It needs to be noted that these ‘imposter’ feelings can create serious mental health issues, with students feeling inadequate, anxious, and depressed because of their perceived shortcomings. On this theme, Colby Thompson is writing a book about her own struggles with being a working-class student at the University of Edinburgh. She studied English Literature but unfortunately had to leave the University – she has made some positive steps and is currently studying at the University of Sheffield. She is looking for submissions from all students about their own experiences on this theme, and other mental health issues that you have experienced at University as well. You can email Colby at email@example.com or, if you would prefer to submit anonymously, you can email me personally and I can forward your experiences for you: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Image: via Wikipedia